Turning around an old story about government

Sally FoxI learned the power of how long an old story about government can persist when I started work as a contractor to the US Army Corps of Engineers many years ago. I was directing a year-long leadership development program in association with Antioch University, Seattle where I taught. Thrilled to have won this contract, I was really looking forward to learning about the Corps and its engineers.

I was not expecting the “welcome” some Antioch students had prepared for my first class of twelve Army Corps employees.

Four days before my class was scheduled to arrive on campus, I entered Antioch’s main campus building, and was surprised to see dozens of fliers, stuck all over the old brick walls, blaring their unequivocal message:

Antioch should not do business with ENVIRONMENTAL TERRORISTS

I knew Antioch had a strong commitment to social justice and the environment, but this seemed a bit over-reactive.

I hoped the student organizer would be willing to talk with me and he was.

“Help me understand,” I asked.

“The Corps is responsible for building big dams that hurt the environment and have killed the salmon.  That’s environmental terrorism, ” he explained.

Fair enough, as one side of a complex picture. The dams built in the 1930’s—in a different era, with a different congress, different environmental regulations, and a different mandate to the Corps—did radically impact the environment.

It was the old story about the Corps manipulating (and destroying) parts of the environment in order to build mega-projects.

Fortunately, in my incoming group of 12 Corps emerging leaders there was a woman who, to this day, remains my model of a committed feet-on-the-ground environmentalist. With her engineering degree, her experience with environmental cleanup and her environmental concerns, she was making a significant contribution to cleaning up toxic waste sites and protecting a key aquifer in the Tacoma area.

She was part of the new story: Using engineering science to support the environment.

The student activist was willing to speak with her about what the Corps was really doing—circa 1995 not 1935. Two days later all the fliers came down.

How to spread the new story

The Corps, like many government agencies, can’t advertise and market itself. Its Public Affairs Office (PAO) can share information, but can’t run public promotional campaigns. (Plus a skeptical public can always discount information that sounds too much like official-ese.)

It can take a long time to turn public perception around.

But stories are a powerful tool to help tell the new story of government, especially when they come from people we know and trust: Our neighbors who are government employees; folks who have benefited from services; public partners; the woman in my class.

Those of us who want to share the new story about government need to be story cultivators, story listeners, and story sharers.  We build frameworks, identify new messages and find the real stories that support them.

Then, story by story, we will build a new narrative.

Sally Fox, Ph.D. is a story catalyst, facilitator, and leadership coach who has been cultivating stories within government for over 25 years.  She’ll be speaking at the Expanding the Narrative Symposium May 24th. Visit her website at www.engagingpresence.com, or contact her at sally@engagingpresence.com.